Friday, January 31, 2014

On Living and Connecting

Way back in mid-summer, I posted a list of topics I felt would be covered here in future posts—a sort of preview trailer, if you will. One list item, tiny houses, hasn’t had much play here on the blog, but took a prominent role in class discussion today.

We’re reading our way through John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley and our format is that everyone is to come to class with a list of three discussion topics. Anything is fair game: questions, connections, favorite quotes—the only rule is you have to come with something (three somethings, actually) to talk about.

Often times, a student’s thoughts will be, quite literally on the same page as my own.  Today was one of those days. 

While spending time in Maine early in his journey (midway through part 2, for those reading along at home) Steinbeck marveled at the apparently new practice—in1960— of people living in mobile homes. Steinbeck made it a practice to talk to people along his travels, to pull locals into his trip experience so he could learn new perspectives. Not a bad way to go about a journey of any kind, I’d say.  So he spent time in a few of these newfangled trailer parks—supped with families, chatted with park managers, toured a few of the “wonderfully built” homes.

Of course, the immediate response here was to giggle just a bit at the concept of mobile homes being not only new, but applauded.  But then I asked the students if they could think of any modern day parallels to the mobile home.

M—always sharp, that one--noted the irony of today’s RVs being a status symbol, but trailers representing the polar opposite.  True.  But I encouraged the students to dig even deeper.  What was really going on here? Why were people attracted to this new type of living?

Steinbeck asked the same question. “Why did a family choose to live in such a home?” he asked, then answered his own question: “Well, it was comfortable, compact, easy to keep clean, and easy to heat.” Hmm.

I asked the students if they have heard of tiny houses.  One or two raised a tentative hand.  So I pulled up google images and we took a look at our modern version of sustainable, simple living.  Go--check it out--it's fascinating.

It became clear, then, that this idea to downsize—to not be tied down to endless chores and cleaning, and throwing cash at a heating bill wasn’t bound to a certain decade.  Thinking back to Whitman, we realized that the idea of unfettered living in the moment wasn’t even tied to a single century.  And so it began.

I divided the class into groups and they worked at finding other connections between Whitman and Steinbeck.  One group decided that Steinbeck and Whitman had similar views on religion—finding God in nature rather than organized religion.  Another group talked about Whitman’s comments on animals:

“I think I could turn and live with animals, they're so placid
and self-contain'd, 
I stand and look at them long and long.”
--Song of Myself, section 32

--and discussed Steinbeck’s choice of Charley as a traveling companion.  M and his group talked about both authors' desire to sleep under stars and live in the moment.

Connections and ideas and energy coursed through the room as it did through the veins of the writers who included us in their journeys.  I can only hope this semester will be a launching pad for many more adventurous travels.

Good stuff.

I hope someone out there may be reading along with us—and, if you are, please join in the conversation.

This is the fourth installment of our new Friday Feature exploring the literature I'm teaching my sophomores in our Great American Road Trip course.  I'm so excited to be sharing some of my favorite books--stories that have inspired me and fed my sense of adventure and belief that anything at all is possible if you just set out and explore. Glad to have you along for the ride.

Friday, January 24, 2014

They Get It…Pretty Much #lovemystudents

“He didn’t take notes or keep an expense account.  He was just ballin’.  Live in the moment—that’s the theme of this course, isn’t it?”  my student, M, observed.

Having finished our discussion on Whitman’s Song of Myself (with the students collaborating on modern day rewrites --an activity of which forward-thinking Whitman totally would have approved) we turned our attention to John Steinbeck’s cross country adventure, Travels With Charley.  I asked the students to do some background research and then report back to class with their findings.  I will let them bring you some of the particulars of this text.

On Charley: “Of course Charley is a dog,” R noted, after another student’s announcement that Charley was a Blue Poodle, “man’s best friend.” 

“I didn’t really know,” J said, sheepishly.  “I figured he was a gentleman friend.”

On Steinbeck’s Family: “They weren’t happy with the trip.  He had a heart condition and they were like, ‘Dude, you’re going to die.’”

 On Reports of Allegations of Embellishment from Steinbeck’s Son:  “Why was the son such a jerk?” K asked. 

“Probably because Steinbeck took the dog instead of him!” S laughed in response.

On Steinbeck: “I had no idea this was the same guy that wrote Grapes of Wrath!”

And so we begin.  It’s going to be a fun ride!  You in? We're reading Part One this week--grab a book and join in the fun.

This is the third installment of our new Friday Feature exploring the literature I'm teaching my sophomores in our Great American Road Trip course.  I'm so excited to be sharing some of my favorite books--stories that have inspired me and fed my sense of adventure and belief that anything at all is possible if you just set out and explore. Glad to have you along for the ride.

Sunday, January 19, 2014


Thhh…chink, thchink, thchinkk

Oh, crap.  Oh, no, nooooo… my thoughts raced and my stomach dropped.

I had just pulled away from the gas pump in my very new 2014 Chevy Spark; the one I got right after last semester's third epic breakdown and this was the sound that accompanied my departure.

I steeled myself before getting out to assess the damage.  I walked around, gasped, and immediately got back in the car.  I’d sideswiped one of those ubiquitous concrete poles you see around gas pumps.  The damage covered several panels.  It wasn’t good.

I felt sick to my stomach.  Irrational thoughts flooded through my head.  I’d purchased the highest level maintenance package available, and I remembered something about dent and ding repair.  Yes, ding repair, I’ll go with that, definitely that.  My husband constantly reminds me that I spent way too much on this package and that I shouldn’t have to pay a dime outside of filling the tank for 5 years.  At least. 

I felt disturbed by the amount of paint damage, and my ability to recall the particulars of my package coverage, but, I reasoned, something I purchased should cover me.  Something.

I decided to drive straight to the dealer.  I was sure they wouldn’t be impressed, so I decided that I’d open with a reminder of my ding and dent coverage.

A gruffish man—definitely not a member of the friendly sales team I’d met a few weeks ago—was the first person to speak to me when I pulled in.  He steered me away from the front door, where a film crew was attempting to shoot a commercial and wanted to know why I was there.

“Well, um, I had a bit of a mishap with my new car and since I purchased ding and dent coverage, I’m, um…”

He walked toward the car and guffawed.  “That’s more than a ding,”  he snorted, marching me toward the collision department where he loudly announced his arrival with “a young lady who’s had an accident.”

Accident?  Things seemed to be escallating out of control.  “I’m here about my ding and dent coverage,” I replied, weakly.

The woman at the desk shook her head.  “You’ll have to see someone who can answer your questions,” she said, telling me to come back in an hour and a half.

Now, what I was supposed to be doing was reading a piece I had found in my email the night before; one that would be discussed at my first MFA workshop of the spring semester, a workshop I should be heading to, in, say an hour and a half if I wanted any buffer.

I didn’t think things had gone well, so I emptied my glove box of all my car-related paperwork, pouring over it as I slurped soup.  It was not encouraging.  The dent and ding coverage was specifically listed as “paintless” –aka invalid if the dent in question involved any paint transfer.  It also mentioned repairing single dents no larger than “about the size of a standard credit card.” My “dents” were multiple and could, perhaps, be covered by all of the standard size cards in my wallet.

“Let’s pretend we saw none of this, and start over when we get there,” The Baker said.  “Chances are this is covered in your bumper-to-bumper warranty,” she suggested.

Back at the dealer, Ron the collision guy, cups his chin in his palm and shakes his head. “Hmmmm…there’s no warranty in any chevorlet package that would cover this,” he said.  “But,” he added, brightly, noting my crestfallen countenance, “it really looks worse than it is.  It is very, very repairable.  I suggest you go home and call your insurance company.  This sort of thing is what you pay them for every month.”

Oh!  Oh, insurance—I’d kind of forgotten about that.

I took Ron’s advice, and sure enough—things were going to be OK.  OK enough that I left the dealer and right to class, albeit without doing the reading.  But I was, in an accident, after all, right?  And I just got the email the night before.  Surely it’s all understandable.

The professor, B., was not impressed.  He proceeded to talk about the reading for over an hour, a conversation I could only listen to sheepishly. He then outlined his desire that we focus on disaster for awhile, and sent us home to write up four pages on a personal disaster, due today.  So theoretically, it could be said that I've been wallowing in disaster from first thchink to this morning's email submission. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

When it Comes to Social Media, Walt Whitman Nailed it Over 150 Years Ago

This is the second installment of our new Friday Feature exploring the literature I'm teaching my sophomores in our Great American Road Trip course.  I'm so excited to be sharing some of my favorite books--stories that have inspired me and fed my sense of adventure and belief that anything at all is possible if you just set out and explore. Glad to have you along for the ride.

So my students and I have decided that Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself is pretty much the 19th century equivalent of this:

While 4 year old Jessica danced on her bathroom counter celebrating herself through song, 37 year old Whitman “loafed” on the grass and penned:

Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man
    hearty and clean,

Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be
    less familiar than the rest.

I am satisfied — I see, dance, laugh, sing;

Chances are Jessica’s Daily Affirmation has scrolled across your newsfeed at some point.  YouTube stats indicate that the link was clicked, liked or shared over 14 million times—by people who probably went right back to scrolling across their screens, missing the call to celebrate the moment.

Another hot social gem popping up on my newsfeed of late encourages viewers to put down the very devices on which they’re viewing the slice-of -life video documenting our sad, screen-addicted state of affairs.  But Whitman wouldn’t know anything of our modern day obsession with banal trivialities that take us from the here and now….would he?

Let’s hear from him:

Trippers and askers surround me,

People I meet, the effect upon me of my early life or the ward
   and city I live in, or the nation,

The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors
   old and new,
My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues,

The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I

The sickness of one of my folks or of myself, or ill-doing or
   loss or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations,

Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful
     news, the fitful events;

These come to me days and nights and go from me again,

But they are not the Me myself.
                                                                  ---Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, section 4

I don’t know about you, but that pretty much reads like my facebook newsfeed.  Whitman coined his own term for this cacophony of distraction: the blab of the pave.  His version sounds like this:

 The blab of the pave, tires of carts, sluff of boot-soles, talk of
     the promenaders,

The heavy omnibus, the driver with his interrogating thumb,
       the clank of the shod horses on the granite floor,

The snow-sleighs, clinking, shouted jokes, pelts of snow-balls,
the hurrahs for popular favorites, the fury of rous'd mobs,
The flap of the curtain'd litter, a sick man inside borne to the


The meeting of enemies, the sudden oath, the blows and fall,

The excited crowd, the policeman with his star quickly
       working his passage to the centre of the crowd,

The impassive stones that receive and return so many echoes,

What groans of over-fed or half-starv'd who fall sunstruck or
       in fits,

What exclamations of women taken suddenly who hurry
       home and give birth to babes,
What living and buried speech is always vibrating here, what
       howls restrain'd by decorum,
Arrests of criminals, slights, adulterous offers made,
       acceptances, rejections with convex lips,
I mind them or the show or resonance of them —
 I come and I
---Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, section 8

Not so different from the content of the statuses, memes, and commentary on perpetual scroll across my screens.  My students and I agree: in terms of living in the joy of the moment, not much has changed since the Civil War era. 

Is the human condition, then, to be doomed to distraction, diversion, and missed moments?  Will the "trippers" and "askers" always consume our best moments?  Are we forever chained to the constant chatter that is, collectively, "the blab of the pave"?

For perspective, we turn once more to Whitman:

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor
look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the
    spectres in books,

You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things

    from me,

You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

---Song of Myself, Section 2

What will you experience first hand today? What will you look at, listen to, and celebrate?  Don't look to me for answers, or even to Whitman--walk away from the screen and into your story. 


Blog Widget by LinkWithin